Preventative excavations have uncovered a tranche of graves over two thousand years old on Paris’s Ile de la Cite, the current home of Notre Dame Cathedral, El Pais reported last week. The excavations are being carried out ahead of the expansion of the Port Royal station of the Paris RER B commuter train.
50 graves were found at the site, which was once the Roman town Lutetia, home to Gallic Parisii tribe. Lutetia’s cemetery, known as the Saint-Jacques necropolis, was first discovered during excavations in the 19th century and first used between the first and third centuries.
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According to El Pais, archaeologists at the time were concerned more with objects of value and ignored the skeletons they found, despite the information about ancient Paris that could be obtained from the people and objects buried there. The gravesite was ultimately forgotten about.
“What’s so exceptional about this is that we have a window into our past, which is quite rare in this city,” Dominique Garcia, president of France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), told the French broadcaster Europe 1. “Drawing on their funeral rites, we can reach a kind of general vision of the people who lived in Paris in the second century,” he added.
The skeletons, which included men, women, and children, were found in wooden coffins that had been burned, as was the Parisii’s custom. As such, only small bits of wood and metal nails were left behind apart from the skeletons. About half the graves, INRAP said, had small objects with them including ceramic and glass cups and jugs were, the remains of bits of clothing like pins, belts or traces of shoes. Some skeletons had a coin placed in their mouths of in the coffin, likely an offering to the god Charon who would ferry the dead to the underworld.
An offering pit was also found, with the complete skeleton of a pig, an additional small animal, and two large ceramic containers likely “aimed at ensuring the deceased’s survival in the afterlife,” El Pais said.
Scientists hope that the discovery will not only shed light on the lives of the Parisii but also but provide material for DNA testing from which they can learn more about the health of the ancient Parisians.